One of the cave replicas at the Getty’s Dunhuang exhibit
For close to 1,000 years, Dunhuang, an oasis town in western China, served as the crossroads of the world, with art that reflected its cosmopolitan nature. Much of that art is found in the Mogao Caves located just outside of the town and reflect the development of Buddhist art in China from 400 AD to approximately 1400 AD. Fast-forward to today and Dunhuang is a virtual unknown to most Americans. Its hypnotic cave art completely forgotten by the world at large.
But starting this Saturday, the Getty Center will change this status quo, bringing the jewels of Dunhuang to North America in a magical exhibit that is not to be missed. Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road contemplates the Getty’s 25-year history conserving this amazing art and supporting the Dunhuang Academy, a Chinese-based organization created in 1944 to preserve the Buddhist cave art of Dunhuang.
A westernized figurine in one of the earlier caves
Cave Temples of Dunhuang is broken down into three parts. The first portion is a perfect replica of three caves – Cave 275, Cave 285 and Cave 320. Surrounded by imposing Buddhist statues and with walls covered with Buddhist art, together these caves show the development and siniciziation of Buddhist art. In Cave 275, western artistic influence is apparent, with one statute displaying clear Western features. Cave 285 includes Hindu deities as part of the Buddha’s court. But by Cave 320, the art is clearly Chinese. It is also the height of Chinese art.
After visiting the caves, you are escorted to the second part and it is likely this part that will serve as the biggest draw. It is probably the reason why the Getty is extending its weekend hours. Instead of physically replicating the caves, the Getty commissioned yU+co to create a 3-D, immersion copy of one of the Mogao Caves. After donning 3-D glasses, you are escorted to a dark room and soon, you are flying around Cave 45, stopping periodically on a statute or painting on the ceiling, with the narrator explaining the religious significance of each piece. It is a fun way to see this art and an amazing experience. It is also likely the way of the future for museums shows. Or at least those that can afford it.
But it is the third part – the most traditional – that truly showcases the gems of this exhibit. After 1400, the Mogao Caves were largely closed, forgotten and covered by sand. But in the early 1900s, western explorers re-discovered this area. With China in the throes of dynastic decline and revolution, these explores absconded with some of the best art – paintings on silk, ancient manuscripts, instructions on how to paint the caves – all of which had been perfectly preserved in a sealed up cave known as the Library Cave. These masterpieces largely sit in storerooms of British and French museums. The British Museum, which has the most artifacts from the Library Cave, has none of these pieces on permanent display. The French museums also rarely show their Dunhuang pieces. While these museums argue that exposure to the light would destroy these delicate artifacts, one wonders if, in 2016, that is still the real reason why only a select few are permitted to see these amazing pieces of art and important relics of world history.
How did all those tiny Buddhas get to the ceiling? The Getty explains
Fortunately, the Getty was able to borrow many of the treasures of the Library Cave and has displayed these for visitors to see. The Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest printed book, is on display, as are writings reflecting the various religions practiced in Dunhuang – Hebrew scripture, a Christian psalm translated into Chinese. But the paintings on silk are truly mesmerizing, with bold colors and patterns that hold your attention. One painting on silk seems more like an art deco piece of the 1920s than a piece from 700 AD, making one realize that some conceptions of beauty never go out of style. Once the Getty closes this show and returns the art, these are pieces that will likely never see the light of day again which is truly a travesty. This alone is a reason to see this show. But the final part of Cave Temples of Dunhuang ends with an explanation of how these caves were built, the lives of the artisans and how exactly they did all of this, allowing the visitor to better understand the people who commissioned
1920s Art Deco or 700s Tang Dynasty?
and built these caves.
Through Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road, and the care that went into creating such a breathtaking show, the Getty Center’s dedication to preserving this important world cultural site and sharing its beauty is clear. And unlike its British and French museum counterparts, the Getty understands that this important art must been seen by the world at large. Cave Temples of Dunhuang also does a wonderful job of explaining the religious and historical significance of the art and perfectly captures why Dunhuang is still an important site. If you are in Los Angeles this summer, be sure to put this at the top of your list. You won’t regret it.
Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road
May 7, 2016 – September 4, 2016
The Getty Center
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angles, CA 90049 ***During the Exhibit, the Getty will stay open late on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays***
Note that tickets for the physical and immersion caves are timed but the exhibit of artifacts can be seen at any time.
Today, the Mogao caves are are UN World Heritage Site. But for a few hundred years the caves fell into oblivion. Few knew of their existence and none visited. It was not until the turn of the twentieth century that the caves were “re-discovered” by a Taoist abbot named Wang Yuanlu. Quickly word of his discovery reached some of the Western archaeologist-explorers traveling through Central Asia. Understanding the significance of this art, many of these Western explorers descended on Dunhuang to see this all for themselves.
As a result, many of the greatest pieces of Dunhuang art are in various museums in the West. Was this art taken legally? Do the Chinese want it back?
Dunhuang expert, Dr. Neil Schmid answers these questions and more in Part 2 of his interview with China Law & Policy. If you would like to hear Dr. Schmid speak live, join him next week as he speaks on these issues on September 23 at 7:30 PM at the Courtyard Institute in Beijing.
Read the transcript below of Part 2 of this two-part interview or click on the media player below to listen:
Length: 12:29 minutes
To read or listen to Part 1 of this two-part interview series with Dr. Scmid, click here.
EL: Just to move away from the art to the political. I know when I visited the Mogao caves, it appears that for foreigners visiting the caves, part of the tour is a stop in a separate building documenting the Western countries’ purchasing and taking of the Mogao’s manuscripts and cave art at the turn of the 20th century. We know that in the case of the British, they purchased from the monk in charge of the caves at the time, the world’s oldest printed book, the Diamond Sutra. They had examples of an American explorer also purchasing some old Buddhist manuscripts, as well as physically lifting some of the cave art out of the caves. In that period, why were Westerns so interested in the Mogao caves and how did they even know about it to go out there?
NS: Great questions. So the first visitors were before 1900 and they were typically involved in exploration and survey. This has to do with what was called the Great Game, the machinations between the United Kingdom and Russia, the Russian Empire, to control Central Asia. So it was through that process that Central Asia began to be known. While we have these military and quasi-military figures in Central Asia, the first sort of striking discovery was something called the Bower Manuscript. This manuscript was a shock because here in Central Asia we find a birch bark manuscript from the 4th to 6th Centuries in what’s called Hybrid Buddhist Sanskrit or Prakrit.
Before nobody ever thought that we would find these types of materials. What it means is that the Indian civilization in many ways reached into Central Asia. This got people very excited. Number one because these materials don’t exist in India for the most part because the climate is much too moist.
Sir Aurel Stein, 1909
So what happens is after they discovered that manuscript you began to have so-called scholar-explorers, archaeologist, Sir Aurel Stein is a perfect example of that combination, come in and began to do surveys and archaeological surveys of Central Asia.
It was during this period that they began to get word of this great Buddhist site and also a site with lots of manuscripts and that got them very, very excited.
EL: Based on the fact that the tours with Westerners in Dunhuang make it a point to recount this history of the Western explorers and the purchasing of many of the manuscripts, is China making any efforts to get these manuscripts back? Especially the Diamond Sutra.
NS: Not on a large basis. So what we have is a lot of scholars working together, e.g., Chinese scholars with British scholars or French scholars, on an increasingly large basis. Also museums and institutions working together. So what we find now is that on the scholarly end of things, a lot of these materials have been digitized by the International Dunhuang Project. It’s a remarkable project for the amount of material and it is based out of the British Library. They in the process, over the years, have gotten a number of other institutions on board – the Chinese, also the French, the Russians, the Germans – to begin to digitalize their materials, manuscripts and paintings. So this is one thing that has sort of lessened the desperation for return finds because scholars have access to the materials world-wide now.
The Dunhuang Mogao Caves from Afar
Regarding so-called plunderer, Aurel Stein is often labeled that, but as you mentioned, he actually purchased the manuscripts. Of course that is controversial. Also there was Langdon Warner, who is from your alma mater [Harvard], and he is notorious for having used a technique which he felt was innovative. Basically to use tape – I am simplifying it – to put on the murals and rip them off. In the process some were damaged. He actually has a receipt for these. So Harvard’s response might be, for example, “Oh, we have a receipt, they were paid for, we bought them in good order.”
EL: So it’s all very legal.
NS: It’s all very legal, exactly. People might disagree with the methods and the authorities he spoke to actually purchase the materials. Of course, there is a lot of room for debate on this issue.
EL: I think in a talk you gave previously, you had mentioned that the Abbot [at the Mogao Caves] had tried to get the Qing Dynasty and the Emperor interested it. Could you just talk a little bit more about that?
NS: Yes. Wang Yuanlu was the person who was renovating the cave site in around the year 1900 when he discovered the cache of manuscripts. And it is a fantastic cache of manuscripts. He recognized that they were important, he wanted to get in touch with the authorities in order to know what to do with these manuscripts. And in fact the Qing Dynasty authorities weren’t that interested. Part of the slow response by the Chinese government at the time was that it was dominated by Confucian elites. They saw Buddhist materials as simply not that interesting. So this is one reason I believe that the process was slowed down for the Chinese government to recognize the value of this incredible find.
EL: Just to fast-forward a bit in time, when you go to the Mogao Caves you still see a tremendous amount of art
Tang Dynasty cave art peeking out of an entrance at Mogao caves
on the walls, you still see a tremendous amount of the carvings. How were these cave arts able to survive the Cultural Revolution as well as the campaign against the Four Olds that sought to destroy a lot of Buddhist art?
NS: Mogao and Dunhuang was fortunate because they had a powerful patron if you will, Zhou Enlai, Premier Zhou Enlai. He was hugely supportive of the renovation project, the project to stabilize the cliff face, to begin the catalogue process and also research in general. He specifically said that Mogao Caves were not to be damaged. And I have to put in a plug here also for the Dunhuang Research Academy and the people there, scholars there, who had been working on the materials for literally dozens of years at that point, they made a serious effort to talk to Red Guards, to discuss the value of the materials.
EL: And what about today, what’s being done to preserve the caves and will preservation be successful especially as more tourists come to Dunhuang?
Camels on the Silk Road
NS: Part of the problem with the caves today is that moisture and also carbon dioxide is beginning to deteriorate the caves. There’s also ground water coming up because there’s a lot of irrigation to make pretty gardens, if you will, in front of the attraction. So that water is seeping up into the caves so that the lower level of caves, at the bottom of the murals, they’re beginning to completely deteriorate.
So what’s been done over the last three decades is that the Getty Conservation Institute has gotten involved – of the Getty Museum in L.A.. That’s since 1985. It’s been their longest running project of conservation, heritage conservation. They have been instrumental in working with the Dunhuang Research Academy and also the Chinese government in creating, number one an analysis, a very detailed analysis, of the materials involved in the construction of the caves, how they deteriorate, why they deteriorate and ways to prevent it. On top of that there’s also a digitalization project going on [and a major upcoming exhibit on Dunhuang caves May 2016 at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles]
Part of that, along with the visitors center that recently opened, is to provide tourists with an alternative experience. So through the digitalization or the immersive digitalization of the case themselves at the vistor’s center and then to decrease the number of visitors actually going into the caves.
Mogao Cave #98, Uighur retinue
EL: The visitor’s center is very, very impressive and a lot of fun which leads me to think they’re hoping a lot more people come to visit it. For people who aren’t China people, China scholars, what do you think is the significance of these caves? Why should just regular Americans, when they take a trip to China, why should they go out to Dunhuang?
NS: The caves which span in their creation 1,000 years are the largest repository of Chinese art. Maintain and contain items and designs and styles, aesthetics, and also the very space itself that doesn’t exist anywhere else in China. So in terms of this kind of immersive experience, you can’t get better than Dunhuang to see how people experienced Buddhism in the Tang, for example, period. So that’s a major reason. Dunhuang itself and the Mogao caves, the site is stunning and gives you a sense of what the power of trade that unfolded over 1000 years on the silk roads or silk route if you will. The caves themselves have a cosmopolitanism. Dunhuang at that time we know from manuscripts was incredibly mixed and well-integrated. So there is a fascination with that as well.
EL: Finally, can you describe your favorite cave and why it is your favorite cave? You have to have a favorite.
EL: You can’t love them all.
Mogao Cave #98, King of Khotan and retinue (c.920)
NS: In spite of its formulaic nature, there’s a cave, Cave 98, which is remarkable. It’s quite large; it’s a large family cave, it’s an elite’s cave. But what’s fascinating for me is it’s well preserved but it also lays out the political nature of the caves, the political nature of Buddhism also. You have large donor portraits of the King of Khotan and his relations to the Dunhuang elite. Its remarkable for that reason that here we have a sort of detailed outline of political alliances that were being constructed and set in a ritual space, which is a cave. This sort of liturgical moment that in some ways is frozen in time. That’s what these caves do, they maintain relationships both among people and also with the Buddha forever and forever. I find that fascinating and Cave 98 is particularly rich in the historical-political elements.
EL: Okay, well, thank you again Dr. Schmid for your enlightening explanation of the Mogao caves. Hopefully, more people will go there but not breathe on the caves. Thank you.
NS: Thank you very much
See, for example, Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (London: Kodansha International, 1992).
A selection of Dr. Schmid’s publications and talks can be found by clicking here. Or join Dr. Schmid at the Courtyard Institute in Beijing on September 23, 2015 at 7:30 pm.
Hansen, Valerie. The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Hopkirk, Peter. Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.
Rong, Xinjiang, and Imre Galambos. Eighteen Lectures on Dunhuang. Leiden: Brill, 2013.
Whitfield, Roderick, Susan Whitfield, and Neville Agnew. Cave Temples of Mogao at Dunhuang: Art and History on the Silk Road, Second Edition. Second Edition, Revised edition. Los Angeles, California: Getty Conservation Institute, 2015.
From The Printed Image in China: Qing Dynasty "Folkloric" Print
For many, wood block prints are synonymous with all things Japanese. But as “The Printed Image in China” – a traveling show from the British Museum currently on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – demonstrates, such a perception is totally wrong since it was China that first developed the technology, allowed it to flourish and made it an integral part of its culture and history. The Printed Image in China is a must see, but must be seen by the end of July before it closes on the 29th.
This small, six gallery show begins with the earliest known prints in the world. Although the Gutenberg Bible, printed in 1454, is commonly referred to as the first printed book, in reality, China was printing books, through wood block printing technology, as early as the 700s (likely even earlier). The Diamond Sutra, purchased by Hungarian-British explorer Marc Aurel Stein in 1907 from a monk in the Dunhuang region of China, is the earliest, dated printed book in the world, with a date of 868 A.D.
Although the Diamond Sutra is not part of the show, some of the thousands of other ancient manuscripts that were a part of Stein’s Dunhuang purchase and estimated to have been printed around the same time if not earlier, start this phenomenal show. For prints from the early Tang Dynasty (618 A.D. – 907 A.D.), the detail is truly astounding. In particular, “Bodhisattva Mahapratisara with the Text of ‘Da Sui qiu tuoluoni,‘” gives one pause, reciting an entire sutra within the print along with detailed pictures of Guanyin, making one wonder about the difficulty of carving it and the patience required.
The show then jumps to prints to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), where the technology of wood block truly began to thrive and the industry flourished. During the Ming, the use of multiple colors on a print – by carving different blocks for each color – developed, producing glorious prints that accurately copied the famous paintings of the day. Later on in the show an entire gallery – and a highlight – is dedicated to demonstrating the genius of this technique with actual replicas of the differently colored blocks that would be used to create a single picture. It’s easy to linger in that room, studying the intricacies of the method.
Wood block printing continued and peaked as an art form during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). By the middle Qing, wood block printing was
Etching of Qianlong Battle (c. 1770) in the European Style
becoming its own art form. Whereas the goal of the Ming artists was to make the wood block prints appear as much as a painting as possible, the Qing artists began to experiment with more vibrant colors (think hot pink) and thinner paper which resulted in an embossed, tactile texture to the print, making it obvious this was not a painting. In addition, under the Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799), China experimented with the use of copper plates, prevalent in Europe at that time, Viewing some the etchings of famous European battles that the Jesuits priests brought with them to court, Emperor Qianlong (1711 – 1799) commissioned Matteo Ripa to create copper-plated etchings of Qianlong’s own battles.
A high point of the show is the “folkloric” prints found in the third gallery. Unlike the pieces found in prior galleries, these prints – exploding with color – would have been everyday art, hung for New Years in an average person’s home. Depicting the doorway gods and the Kitchen God, these prints – dating to the mid to late 1800s – were likely purchased directly by British that were in China at the time and viewed them as art to be maintained. For the Chinese, these pictures were utilitarian in that they warded of the spirits for that year and, in keeping with tradition, would have been burned in preparation for the next New Year.
Li Hua's Raging Tide - Example of Modern Woodcut Movement
The final century, the 20th century, saw a renaissance of the wood block not just once but twice. With the fall of the Qing, the uncertain rule of the Nationalists and the impending invasion of the country by the Japanese, the average Chinese was suffering. Author Lu Xun (1881 – 1936), along with Li Shutong, were the major proponents of the “Modern Woodcut Movement” which used the sharpness of the woodcuts to reflect the harshness of daily existence in China. By the 1920s, woodcutting was on the rise throughout the world and would become a common medium for many artists attempting to depict and democratize the misery of the average individual. China was right along with Western nations in using the art form to communicate democratizing thoughts.
Wood block printing had a second 20th century renaissance under Chairman Mao Zedong (1949 – 1976). With the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the government became the only patron of the arts and art was there to only to serve the government. With the Communists, mass production became essential and where as in the past, wood carving was only one technique an artist might used, under the Mao, with its ability to create rapid reproductions for wide dissemination, wood carving would become a sole medium for many of the state-employed artists. As a result, a talented pool of woodcutters emerged, taking the skill of the craft to the next level; the artists were able to use the wood block prints to create a feel to the different materials and emotions depicted in the print.
With the death of Mao in 1976 and the re-emergence of the market economy, these artists have continued with their crafted, creating new wood blocks prints that express their own emotions instead of the Party line.
The Printed Imagine in China is a must see show before it closes on July 29 but not just for the astounding prints that fill every gallery in this show. What also emerges from this show and the careful way it has been laid out and described, is how this art form is an integral part of China’s political and cultural legacy and will be a part of its artistic future. From the first gallery, wood block prints were printed for political reasons –
Post 1980 Woodcut: Wu Jide - Chatting over Tea
with the Tang, the politics was religion. Spreading Buddhism was essential to the Tang Dynasty and the wood block prints, with its quicker way to reproduce the Buddha’s teaching, was important to that goal.
Under the Ming, spreading the literati culture became its own mission. Across the Empire, a cultural language arose amongst the elites – an educated man needed to have certain books on his shelves and certain paintings on his walls. Wood block printing created that mass culture among the literati. With the Qing dynasty, a foreign dynasty ruled by the Manchu people as opposed to the Han Chinese, wood block printing was used to solidify its rule, especially with the battle depictions of Emperor Qianlong. For much of the 20th Century, first under the Modern Woodcut Movement of Lu Xun and then the Communists of Mao Zedong, the political message was clear; under Mao, it was required.
Unlike the centuries before, the 21st century finds the art form – perhaps for the first time – unhinged from any political purpose. As the final gallery, with its post-1980s wood block prints, confirmed, the art form has exciting, new places to go that will do justice to its long history.
Tang Dynasty Wood Block Print - ca. late 700s A.D. (from the Dunhuang Purchase)
The Printed Image in China: 8th through 21st Century
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(on loan from the British Museum)
1000 Fifth Ave (at 82nd Street)
New York, NY Through July 29, 2012